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Charlie’s London: Chaplin’s women – part two

August 13, 2012
Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Hi everyone. Welcome back to another edition of Charlie’s London.

As promised I will be looking at two more women who I believe shaped his life, both on screen and off. Last time I looked at Chaplin’s mother and Mabel Normand, this week I will look at Edna Purviance and Oona O’Neill. I have to confess, Normand never used to be a favourite of mine, even though I consider her contribution to be important and often overlooked. Now, I have to say, I’m really in her corner. People have often said that Chaplin and Normand hated each other. People have also often said Chaplin and Mary Pickford hated each other too, for me, these relationships are one and the same. Their relationships were creative ones: if they clashed, let’s call it artistic differences.

Normand not only directed Chaplin but also acted as his leading lady too: a role taken most often by Edna Purviance, who appeared in 33 of his pictures including extra parts in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Purviance was first cast opposite Chaplin in 1915 after a chance meeting with one of his associates in a Tate’s Cafe in San Francisco – the director was looking for a new female lead for his Essanay comedy A Night Out. Even after her final film with Chaplin, A Woman Of Paris in 1923, Purviance stayed on the company payroll right up to her death in 1958.

Chaplin and Purviance were romantically linked for many years, and unfortunately this is how some film enthusiasts and historians seem to want to remember her. I completely disagree with this. Chaplin would never have another leading lady like Purviance – Paulette Goddard comes close, but they don’t have the same bond on screen.

In fact, when we start to look at the relationship between these two, we see many myths about Chaplin completely blown apart. It has often been said that he had a raging temper and treated his staff appallingly, but there was an incident between Chaplin and Purviance that sheds a new light on this.

Edna Purviance in The Kid

Edna Purviance in The Kid

The story goes that Chaplin would often mistreat Purviance because he felt he could, they had been close for many years and he believed he could say what he wanted and get away with it. On one occasion in 1918 he went too far and Purviance fought back, verbally, with such force that Charlie apparently hid in his dressing room, and refused to see her until he not only got the courage to see her again, but she had calmed down. When later he took the plunge she pretended to have forgotten all about the row, brushing it off as quickly as it had happened.

I believe deep down they both never stopped caring for each other, Chaplin himself reveals this in his own autobiography when he talks about meeting Purviance for the first time after his marriage to Mildred Harris. This was the first of Chaplin’s failed marriages, a hurried union after a pregnancy scare. In his book he admits feeling embarrassment and awkwardness during his first meeting with Purviance after news of the marriage broke in the press. Her congratulations and his thanks read like a train wreck on the page. I believe the marriage between these two would have been a brilliant one and I wish I knew the reason it never happened. I do love Purviance: her performance of the troubled and lost mother in The Kid has me in tears every time.

Purviance kept press cuttings and such of Chaplin for the rest of her life. They were best friends, lovers and sometimes worst enemies – the best relationships are made up of all those elements. Chaplin and Purviance shared some very touching moments both on and off the screen, a story of intimate moments in her apartment eating ham and eggs always makes me think of the relationship they had, and smile.


After two more failed attempts at happiness Chaplin found himself hopelessly in love with a beautiful young woman, Oona O’Neill, 36 years his junior. The age difference disturbed her father, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, so much that he disowned her. The marriage produced eight children: Geraldine Chaplin (b.1944), Michael Chaplin (b.1946), Josephine Chaplin (b.1949), Victoria Chaplin (b.1951), Eugene Chaplin (b.1953), Jane Chaplin (b.1957), Annette Chaplin (b.1959) Christopher Chaplin (b.1962). The couple remained married until the day Chaplin died on 25 December 1977.

For Chaplin, O’Neill relinquished her American citizenship in 1952 when he was refused re-entry into the States. She apparently even sewed $1,000 bills into the lining of her mink coat for fear of leaving the country penniless. For him, she also stayed firm when he was falsely accused of fathering Joan Barry’s daughter, a case now deemed one of the biggest travesties in the history of the California legal system.

Charlie and Oona Chaplin

Charlie and Oona Chaplin

They lived a happy and peaceful existence in their Swiss home and when he was honoured by both the British monarchy as a knight of the British empire (KBE Sir Charles Chaplin) and the Academy (receiving an honorary Oscar with a standing ovation that still holds the record for the ceremony at 12 minutes), she was there every step of the way. She handled it all with pure class and grace, the dutiful wife and mother who continued to work tirelessly for her husband’s impeccable genius until she died in 1991.

So why have these women shaped Chaplin? I believe they did the exact opposite to the other women in his life, who tried to compete with his art. Purviance was very much part of his work and the world of the cinema, Oona had grown up with playwrights and actors. Neither woman ever wanted anything from him, unlike Mildred Harris or Lita Grey, and neither drifted from him when their own careers progressed, as Paulette Goddard did.

For me these women are incredibly underestimated and undervalued. Behind every great man is a great woman, and Chaplin is no exception.

Don’t forget everyone, if there is anything else you want to know, or just want to give feedback on anything you see in the blog you can email me at charlies.london@gmail.com.

Ayşe Behçet

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